Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Audiobook with a cast of 166 narrators
Part 2 of a “reader” response-in-progress by Kathleen Kirk
I am still listening to Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, via audiobook. Soon, I’ll put in the last disc. Soon, it will be due back at the library….
In the meantime, the pleasure and wonder continue. As the book progresses, so does the hilarity and the horror. We are, after all, in a cemetery, meeting people in a half-dead state, an in-between state, a state of mixed or uncertain identity for its inhabitants. Into this “bardo,” this purgatory experienced mutually though differently, walks Abraham Lincoln, a living man, the President of the United States, though some of the undead don’t know there is a new president.
Lincoln is grieving, and I stood gripped, utterly still, in my kitchen, listening to his grief. Let me pause and say that I listen to music on a boombox when I cook, and so now, instead, I am listening to Lincoln in the Bardo while I cook or clean up the kitchen, and I am a mediocre-to-bad cook, now made even worse. (Will a bardo cookbook arise from this experience? A chapbook of bardo in the kitchen poems?) With music, I can tune out as needed, replay a song. With a novel, I cannot. I must stay attentive. I cannot read and follow a recipe. I can set the kitchen timer, though, while something simmers….
What I’ve found is that my listening is itself in an in-between state, a little like listening to music and, given this cast of 166 readers, a little like watching a movie, with the images running in my head. The trouble for me at first was keeping track of the voices. One voice sounded like Holly Hunter, who is not listed among the credits on the box and who was reading a man’s part. Now I think that is probably David Sedaris. (Pause for Internet check.) Yes, that’s true. Sedaris plays Roger Bevins, III, a suicide. Nick Offerman is great as Hans Vollman, who was just about to consummate his marriage when he died. These undead characters are in various states of confusion and denial, but they are also, eventually, full of empathy—for each other, for young Willie Lincoln, and for Abraham Lincoln. And the book creates compassion and empathy for those in the bardo, who have come to want something, very important, and are working hard to get it.
Lincoln in the Bardo lets you laugh at people who are wrapped up in themselves, thanks to their unfinished business. It lets you understand that impulse in them, and to care about them. And then it lets you see that astonishing transformation, when they start to feel for someone else. It makes me glad to be human. And still alive.